Welcome to “Fraternizing with the Enemy”, where each week we look at the upcoming games from the perspective of the fans and writers who watch them on a daily basis. We’ll review the each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, players that might have an influence on the match-up, and what might be the result of the game.
What is the Rockets’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Kelly: The Rockets have fully embraced the phrase “next man up.” As we’ve come to see this season, lineup continuity is truly a luxury. The benefits of having a deep roster like Houston has been on full effect this year. Lose Luc Richard Mbah a Moute? Boom, Gerald Green. Trevor Ariza goes down? PJ Tucker and Joe Johnson. Nene or Tarik Black ailing? Brandan Wright (injured, ironically, but you get the point.)
What are they good at? Does winning count as an answer? They are most definitely good at that. One thing they aren’t so good at, however, is keeping guys healthy, which goes back to my original point.
Which Rockets player is going to be the one to watch in this match-up, and why?
Kelly: Trevor Ariza. Since his return from injury, it seems like Ariza has new life to his game. He’s darting around the floor, sticking hands in passing lanes, and doing his best job of annoying your favorite team’s wing players. Contract-Year Trevor is also a real thing — he’s shooting the second highest three-point percentage of his career, right at 39 percent. Probably doesn’t come as a surprise that his highest percentage came during his final year in Washington, before what? Free agency.
Is there an under-the-radar Rockets player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Kelly: He goes under the radar far more than he should, but Thunder fans should keep an eye out for Eric Gordon. As we saw in Saturday night’s game, EG is capable of catching fire quickly and able to spark a run in a hurry, which is crucial for a game like this. He seems to thrive in playoff-like atmospheres and Tuesday will be no different.
What’s the biggest key to the Rockets winning the game, in your opinion?
Kelly: Keeping Steven Adams as far away from rebounds as possible. He always seems to kill the Rockets on the offensive glass, and the worst thing you can give a gifted team like OKC is a second or third opportunity at scoring. He’s honestly become their third best player, and that’s saying a lot coming from one of the last few inhabitants of Hoodie Melo Island. If Clint Capela and Houston can control the glass and the tempo, they have a good chance of stealing this one.
Who wins, and why?
Kelly: Overall, I think OKC wins. Their recent play versus “poor” teams, combined with Houston’s current 15-game winning streak sounds all too perfect for me. The Thunder will get up for this game, as we’ve seen them perform against the best of the best. Westbrook will be extremely locked in, and we’re due for a Carmelo offensive output. 109-106, OKC.
What is the Suns’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
David: Identity? Phoenix has struggled for an identity for a while and that’s kind of okay. This is a team trying to build again from the ground up. Amare Stoudemire joined the broadcast crew during the last OKC matchup (it’s the Suns’ 50th Anniversary season & it was 00’s Night) and he noted that the Suns “are still trying to find their identity”. #TheTimeline is a fan-started motto for this team, and if anything, that is their identity right now—a team full of young talent trying to build something together.
For now, the Suns have the worst net rating in the league, the 28th ranked offense and the 30th ranked defense. On top of that, the lineups change from game to game with injuries and other issues just as much as the effort does. This is not a consistent team by any stretch, but the fools’ gold there is that Booker & Co. can get hot real quick and decide to push you to the end.
Which Suns player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
David: The man to stop is no doubt Devin Booker. If OKC stops him, they win. It’s that simple. But that answer is too easy, and as we saw last matchup, even if you can’t stop Booker (he had 39/6/8), you can still beat Phoenix. Therefore, I will go with Elfrid Payton.
Payton has been pretty good since joining the Suns, even if he has perhaps appeared better than he is due to the Suns’ lack of PG play previously. But if we look back to last game, Payton had 18/10/8/2/2 and was particularly impressive early on attacking the rim and making the Thunder guard him. The unfortunate thing was that after playing solid D early on, he essentially disappeared (on the court and then benched) and let Westbrook have a huge 3rd quarter attacking the rim himself. Payton is the player to watch because he might be the key to the Thunder losing this game. He could make Westbrook work more on defense than he wants to, and he has the tools to potentially stop Westbrook from waltzing to the basket whenever he chooses.
Is there an under-the-radar Suns player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
David: He may not be so under-the-radar after last game, but the NBA world as a whole is starting to learn more about Josh Jackson. After a disappointing start to his rookie campaign, many (including Suns fans) were already calling Jackson a bust. Jackson is starting to look like he has figured things out. Thunder fans might remember three or four highlight plays in the last game that certainly wasn’t under-the-radar at all. Jackson is prone to some poor shot selection, but it’s his high motor that gets him minutes and can become infectious to his teammates around him. In February, Josh is averaging 17.7 points on 45.4% shooting with 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.1 blocks. It’s that type of production that has Suns fans thinking he might be Shawn Marion reloaded. The Thunder need to prevent him from getting out in the open and attacking the rim, which will be tough for their second unit. To date, if you can make Jackson play outside then you can contain him, but if he gets loose—watch out!
What’s the biggest key to the Suns winning the game, in your opinion?
David: Stopping Russell Westbrook.
As mentioned above, the Suns did a pretty good job against the rest of the Thunder lineup in last week’s game. They even kept Westbrook quiet for most of the first half, while they were on top. Russ exploded in the 3rd (and then late in the 4th) to take over the game and it was mostly on the back of easy takes through the lane. If Payton is unwilling to do something about it, look for the Suns to potentially deploy Shaquille Harrison in that role. Shaq is on his second 10-day contract and has played impressive D at times. The Suns have tried to distract Westbrook in the past by putting guys like Derrick Jones Jr. on him. My feeling here is that they try to get him to take it personally and take over the game, often forgetting about his teammates. I’d be interested to see how Shaq handles the challenge.
Who wins, and why?
David: I wouldn’t dare bet against the Thunder in this one. From a Suns perspective, another game just like the last one would be a “win”. Booker recently said there are no moral victories in the NBA, and he is right. However, with how potent this Thunder team is and how inexperienced the current Suns are — I’d take a hard-fought loss for sure. I’d be looking for one of Westbrook or George to take control of this one and get the W for OKC. It’s no secret that more losses equal more ping pong balls for Phoenix, so hard fought losses are like wins at this stage of the season. We Suns fans just want to see the team compete hard like they did the last outing versus the Thunder. We also want to see growth and development from the likes of Jackson, Chriss, and Bender.
To cover the Spurs, we’re going to hear from Matthew Tynan, freelance contributor for a variety of sites, from SBNation and ESPN to USA Today and Complex. You can follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Tynan.
What is the Spurs’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Matthew: I think their identity is difficult to figure out right now. They’ve been without their best player for nearly the entire season and Gregg Popovich has been trying a ton of different rotation combinations. The only thing I can confidently say is the system is the same. And actually, the way they’re moving the ball this year has been what’s kept them afloat; that, and LaMarcus Aldridge is having a great year. So, basically, their identity is their system, which it’s kind of always been, right?
Which Spurs player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Matthew: Well, we’re still not sure about Aldridge. He’s questionable, officially. But I mean, that’s the guy.
Tony Parker has been better than expected coming off his injury, and Manu Ginobili still has some juice at 40 years of age. But outside of that, I’d say Dejounte Murray is the guy to watch. He’s really long and active, and he keeps getting better. Russ is a monster, but Murray is the kind of point guard, at 6’5″, who can at least make things difficult.
Is there an under-the-radar Spurs player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Matthew: Already mentioned Murray, so I’d say Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans. Both are lights-out shooters, just young and inexperienced. But Forbes has become a poor man’s Steph Curry—he can shoot, but he can also get by you and get into that floater range—and Bertans is a giant person who can knock down 3s from anywhere on the floor and is much more athletic than you’d think. They’re fun to watch when they’re on. But as I mentioned, young and inexperienced. No sure thing. But if LMA doesn’t play, there will be much more of them—especially when it comes to Bertans.
What’s the biggest key to the Spurs winning the game, in your opinion?
Matthew: Their defense hasn’t been nearly as good this season. Shocking, without Kawhi, I know. But if Aldridge is out, too, it’s going to be even worse. Again, a lot of this depends on LMA’s ankle. So at this point, given what we know, they’re going to have to hit a lot of shots. They’re capable of it, but it’s a tough proposition going up against this team with, potentially, their two best players in street clothes.
Who wins, and why?
Matthew: The Thunder. Even if Aldridge plays, I doubt he’ll be a full-go. He’s been great this season but I’m not even sure that matters. The Thunder just have too much for a Kawhi-less Spurs team. I’m sure it’ll be competitive—the Spurs always make things competitive—but there’s too much firepower in OKC. The Spurs’ only chance is to just hit shots all night. But the Thunder plays great defense, so that’ll be tough to do. OKC should win this game, especially if LMA is out.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.